Dr Antony Van der Ent

ARC DECRA Research Fellow

Centre for Mined Land Rehabilitation
Sustainable Minerals Institute
a.vanderent@uq.edu.au
+61 7 334 64587

Overview

Dr. Antony van der Ent is a plant scientist and biogeochemist whose research focuses on the biopathways of trace elements (Ni, Co, Cr, Mn, Cd, Pb, Zn and REE) in soil and plant systems. He has a specific interest in the application of phytotechnologies that utilise hyperaccumulator plants (phytomining).

Since 2014, Dr. van der Ent have been leading a research initiative on phytomining at the Centre for Mined Land Rehabilitation (CMLR) at The University of Queensland (UQ). As such he has project managed a number of other programs, including an International Mining for Development Centre (IM4DC)-funded research project on copper-cobalt hyperaccumulator plants in Zambia, and industry-funded research projects on nickel hyperaccumulator plants in Indonesia (Weda Bay nickel on Halmahera Island), and in Australia on metallophytes near Rockhampton (Lucknow scandium deposit), at Broken Hill (historical zinc-lead mining wastes) and near Cloncurry (Roseby copper prospect).

He has had the opportunity to study metallophytes and hyperaccumulator plants on five continents including in the Chilean Andes, the Copperbelt of Northern Zambia, Broken Hill in Australia, Borneo, Sulawesi, Halmahera and New Guinea in the Asia-Pacific Region, South Africa, New Caledonia and various countries in Europe. Dr. Van der Ent has made major discoveries yielding significant advances in knowledge in the field, including pioneering work on tropical nickel hyperaccumulator plants leading to the discovery of 100 new hyperaccumulator species and 10 plant species new to science. He co-authored the first ecological book account on the plant diversity of ultramafic soils in Sabah (Malaysia). Dr. Van der Ent maintains a very strong network of active collaborations across internationally; this is evidenced in his publications with collaborators.

Currently he is section editor for the leading journal Plant and Soil, and associate editor for the Australian Journal of Botany. He was guest editor of a special issue entitled “Plant-soil interactions in global biodiversity hotspots” that appeared in Plant and Soil in 2016. He also edited two double special issues (‘Global research on ultramafic (serpentine) ecosystems') for the Australian Journal of Botany that appeared in 2015. He is editor of a new book entitled “Agromining: extracting unconventional resources from plants” commissioned by SpringerNature which appeared in November 2017. He is also editor of a special issue in the journal Ecological Research in 2018 and a special issue in the Journal of Geochemical Exploration also in 2018.

His work has been widely covered by the media, including features in The Times, AusIMM Bulletin, New Scientist, Süddeutsche Zeitung, Fox News and The Australasian Science magazine. The French-Germany television production company ARTE has filmed a full-length documentary (entitled “Superplants - Die bluhende Revolution") about his research that was broadcast internationally in January 2017.

Currently he is the recipient of an ARC Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA) with research focussed on the biopathways of nickel in hyperaccumulator plants. He has also been awarded a UQ Early Career Researcher award in 2017 to support his research. Dr. Van der Ent is a visiting postdoctoral research fellow at the Laboratoire Sols et Environnement (LABEX Ressources21) of the Université de Lorraine in France.

Research Interests

  • Hyperaccumulator plants
    Hyperaccumulators are rare plants that naturally accumulate trace elements in extraordinarily high concentrations in their tissues. Some of these plants can have up to 25% Ni in phloem sap such as the New Caledonian tree Pycnandra acuminata. These are amongst the highest trace element concentrations in any living organism and the phloem tissue can be literally green from nickel ions. Hyperaccumulation is not just an interesting biological phenomenon, but holds promise for evolutionary, genetic and ecophysiological research and utilization in phytomining. The hyperaccumulation phenomenon is rare (exhibited by <0.2% of angiosperms) with ~70% of the known 500 hyperaccumulator species recorded for Ni. The diversity of Ni hyperaccumulators plants widely distributed, both geographically and across phylogenies suggests that physiological processes of hyperaccumulation have evolved independently, and may therefore differ in their function between species.
  • Phytomining
    Phytomining an innovative technology to recover nickel from minerals wastes by growing and harvesting these plants (“metal crops”) and extracting nickel from their biomass producing a high-grade bio-ore. Nickel hyperaccumulator plants thrive on natural ultramafic soils while accumulating more than >2% of nickel in their dry biomass (translating to 20–25% nickel in the ash (‘bio-ore’): the world’s richest and purest nickel source. Phytomining enables access to large low-grade resources (>0.1% total nickel) located globally that cannot be accessed normally as they are well below the cut-off grades for conventional mining and processing. These nickel resources are widely distributed, especially in the Australia-Pacific Region, and are potentially suited for extraction of nickel by metal crops. Alternatively, the technology could precede the development of lateritic mining projects generating cash flow during the development phase as nickel could be recovered from soil overburden that would be cleared before mining the underlying minerals. Phytomining is expected to be transformative in the environmental rehabilitation of nickel mine sites in Australia, contaminated land or degraded metal-rich land by providing initial vegetative stabilization with the added advantage of a longer-term income stream.
  • Zinc biofortification
    Zinc is essential for humans, as well as for plants and most other organisms. Zinc deficiency is a major problem for human health affecting one-third of the world’s population, especially in developing countries. The main cause for human zinc deficiency is consumption of food crops with low zinc content, and dietary zinc intake can consequently be increased through biofortification of edible crops. Hyperaccumulator plants have the unique ability to concentrate specific elements in their shoot in levels that can be thousands of times greater than normal crop plants. Crucially, zinc hyperaccumulation results from adaptations in the zinc homeostasis shared by all higher plants, and hyperaccumulators achieve exceptional foliar zinc concentrations while growing on soils with normal concentrations of zinc. Insights in the ecophysiology of zinc hyperaccumulator plants may ultimately be applied to improve the uptake and accumulation of zinc in food crops. Furthermore, zinc hyperaccumulator biomass may itself be utilised as organic zinc fertilizers, or indeed as micronutrient supplements for human consumption.

Research Impacts

Hyperaccumulator plants have the potential to be used in phytomining, an innovative technology which utilizes hyperaccumulators as ‘metal crops’ to sequester nickel in their harvestable biomass that can then be used to produce fine nickel chemicals or ecocatalysts. Phytomining is expected to be transformative in the environmental rehabilitation of lateritic nickel mine sites or contaminated land by providing initial vegetative stabilization with the added advantage of a longer-term income stream. Unravelling the pathways associated with advantage uptake will also allow for targeted agronomic practises in phytomining operations, for example by using specific soil amendments, to increase the efficiency of advantage uptake in the metal crop. Dr. van der Ent's research has important implications for advancing the understanding of the homeostasis of trace elements in ‘normal plants’ such as food crops. In particular, insights from hyperaccumulator plants may be applied in the development biofortified crops, for example for zinc.

Qualifications

  • Doctor of Philosophy, The University of Queensland
  • Environmental Technology, Saxion Universities of Applied Sciences Deventer
  • Master of Science, Radboud University Nijmegen

Publications

View all Publications

Supervision

  • Doctor Philosophy

  • Doctor Philosophy

  • Doctor Philosophy

View all Supervision

Available Projects

  • Hyperaccumulators are plants that have the remarkable ability to concentrate up to 6% nickel in their leaves and up to 25% in their sap. These plants can be used in phytomining, a new technology to recover nickel from mining waste or contaminated land by growing and harvesting these plants ('metal crops') and extracting nickel from their biomass thereby producing high-grade bio-ore. Our research seeks to understand how these plants can achieve such extraordinarily levels of nickel uptake in their shoots. We are looking for motivated candidates to pursue PhD research with us in this exciting field. In natural tropical ultramafic soils, or in saprolite mine wastes, the pool of available nickel will be strongly depleted by hyperaccumulator plants and biogeochemically recycled or withdrawn from the ecosystem by harvested biomass. Currently, there is no information on the dynamics and quantification of the nickel pools in ultramafic soils and therefore the potential duration and the efficiency of phytomining. Moreover, there are additional fundamental questions that arise, including the ecological role (niche) of hyperaccumulator plants in native ultramafic ecosystems, their role in ultramafic pedogenesis, and the efficiency of biogeochemical cycling (nutrients and metals) in hyperaccumulator plant stands. This PhD project aims to answer the following key research question: What are the nickel fluxes and dynamics across the soil-plant compartments in a tropical ‘metal crop’ system on ultramafic soils?

  • Hyperaccumulator plants have the unusual ability to concentrate extraordinary amounts of certain trace elements in their living tissues. To date, a total of 15 zinc hyperaccumulator species have been reported globally. Dichapetalum gelonioides is a woody shrub or small tree that occurs in Southeast Asia. Extraordinarily, Dichapetalum gelonioides hyperaccumulates zinc from normal soils with background concentrations of zinc. It is the only tropical and the only woody zinc hyperaccumulator plant species described so far. It has been estimated that as much as 25% of the world's population is affected by Zn deficiency, and mainly results from reduced dietary intake (and low Zn absorption) from food crops low in zinc, especially in developing countries. Zinc hyperaccumulator biomass may be utilized as organic zinc fertilizers or as a micronutrient supplements for human consumption. We are looking for motivated candidates to pursue PhD research with us in this exciting field. The research project will consist of a combination of laboratory and greenhouse experiments, as well as fieldwork. This project contributes to better understanding the ecophysiology of Dichapetalum gelonioides with the ultimate aim of developing it as a zinc biofortified crop.

  • The wastes from the minerals industry are multiple-stressed environments where plants are exposed to potentially phytotoxic metals, as well as a range of other edaphic challenges such as adverse physical characteristics of the substrates, salinity, limited nutrient availability, water stress and drought. The ability of native metallophytes to tolerate extreme metal concentrations and other difficult edaphic conditions indicates their potential for rehabilitation of minerals wastes. Successful rehabilitation strategy could capitalise on the unique ability of these plants to tolerate adverse soil conditions including potential metal toxicity, high salinity, low nutrient status and the semi-arid climate. The main challenge hereby will be to increase the relative abundance of native (metal-tolerant) species. The Dugald River and Roseby zinc-lead-copper deposits, located in central Queensland, are some of the worlds’ largest surfacing ore bodies. Over an area 10 km soils are enriched in zinc, lead and copper and host unique metallophyte vegetation. Identifying these specially-adapted plant species will be crucial for future rehabilitation success at Dugald River and other base metal mining operations of north-west Queensland. We are looking for motivated candidates to pursue PhD research with us in this exciting field. The research project will consist of a combination of laboratory/greenhouse experiments, and fieldwork in Australia.

View all Available Projects

Publications

Book

Book Chapter

  • Morel, Jean Louis, Echevarria, Guillaume, van der Ent, Antony and Baker, Alan J. M. (2018). Conclusions and outlook for agromining. In Antony van der Ent, Guillaume Echevarria, Alan J. M. Baker and Jean Louis Morel (Ed.), Agromining: farming for metals: extracting unconventional resources using plants (pp. 309-312) Cham, Switerland: Springer. doi:10.1007/978-3-319-61899-9_20

  • Reeves, Roger D., van der Ent, Antony and Baker, Alan J. M. (2018). Global distribution and ecology of hyperaccumulator plants. In Antony van der Ent, Guillaume Echevarria, Alan J. M. Baker and Jean Louis Morel (Ed.), Agromining: farming for metals: extracting unconventional resources using plants (pp. 75-92) Cham, Switerland: Springer. doi:10.1007/978-3-319-61899-9_5

  • Gei, Vidiro, Erskine, Peter D., Harris, Hugh H., Echevarria, Guillaume, Mesjasz-Przybylowicz, Jolanta, Barnabas, Alban D., Kopittke, Peter M. and Van der Ent, Antony (2018). Tools for the Discovery of Hyperaccumulator Plant Species and Understanding Their Ecophysiology. In Antony Van der Ent, Echevarria, Guillaume, Baker, Alan J. M. and Morel, Jean Louis (Ed.), Agromining: Farming for Metals (pp. 117-133) Cham, Switzerland: Springer International Publishing. doi:10.1007/978-3-319-61899-9_7

  • Ent, Antony Van der (2016). Analysis of the content of copper, cobalt and other elements in plant leaves. In François Malaisse, Michel Schaijes and Claire D’Outreligne (Ed.), Copper-cobalt flora of Upper Katanga and Copperbelt: field guide (pp. 25-26) Gembloux, Belgium: Presses agronomiques de Gembloux.

  • Van der Ent, Antony (2015). Key values of metallophytes for the minerals industry in Australasia. In Mark Tibbett (Ed.), Mining in ecologically sensitive landscapes (pp. 231-249) Collingwood, VIC, Australia: CSIRO Publishing.

  • Chaney, Rufus L., Reeves, Roger D., Baklanov, Ilya A., Centofanti, Tiziana, Broadhurst, C. Leigh, Baker, Alan J. M., van der Ent, Antony and Roseberg, Richard J. (2014). Phytoremediation and phytomining: using plants to remediate contaminated or mineralized environments. In Nishanta Rajakaruna, Robert S. Boyd and Tanner B. Harris (Ed.), Plant ecology and evolution in harsh environments (pp. 365-391) Hauppage, NY, United States: Nova Science Publishers.

  • Baker, Alan J. M., Ernst, Wilfried H. O., van der Ent, Antony, Malaisse, Francoise and Ginocchio, Rosanna (2010). Metallophytes: The unique biological resource, its ecology and conservational status in Europe, central Africa and Latin America. In Ecology of industrial pollution (pp. 7-40) Cambridge, U. K.: Cambridge University Press.

Journal Article

Conference Publication

  • Vaughan, J., Hawker, W., Chen, J. and van der Ent, A. (2016). The extractive metallurgy of agromined nickel. In: IMPC 2016: XXVIII International Mineral Processing Congress Proceedings. XXVIII International Mineral Processing Congress, Quebec City, Quebec, Canada, (). 11-15 September 2016.

  • Echevarria, Guillaume, Baker, Alan J. M., Benizri, Emile, Houzelot, Vivian, Laubie, Baptiste, Kidd, Petra S., Morel, Jean Louis, Pons, Marie-Noelle, Simonnot, Marie-Odile, Zhang, Xun and van der Ent, Antony (2015). Agromining for nickel: a complete chain that optimizes ecosystem services rendered by ultramafic landscapes. In: 13th International Conference on the Biogeochemistry of Trace Elements (ICOBTE). 13th International Conference on the Biogeochemistry of Trace Elements (ICOBTE), Fukuoka, Japan, (1465-1467). 12–16 July 2015.

  • van der Ent, Antony, Echevarria, Guillaume, Morel, Jean Louis, Simonnot, Marie-Odile, Benizri, Emile, Baker, Alan and Erskine, Peter (2015). Current developments in agromining and phytomining. In: Mineral Resources in a Sustainable World. 13th Society for Geology Applied to Mineral Deposits, Nancy, France, (1495-1496). 24-27 August, 2015.

  • van der Ent, Antony, Mesjasz-Przybylowicz, Jolanta, Przybylowicz, Wojciech and Barnabas, Alban (2015). Micro-PIXE study of Phyllanthus balgooyi, nickel hyperaccumulating tree from Sabah (Malaysia). In: 14th International Conference on Particle Induced X-Ray Emission: PIXE in outreach research. 14th International Conference on Particle Induced X-Ray Emission, Cape Town, South Africa, (58-58). 25 February– 3 March 2015.

  • van der Ent, Antony, Harris, Hugh H., Erskine, Peter D. and Echevarria, Guillaume (2015). Synchrotron X-ray fluorescence imaging elucidates fine-scale elemental distribution in Rinorea bengalensis and R. javanica (Violaceae). In: 13th International Conference on the Biogeochemistry of Trace Elements (ICOBTE). 13th International Conference on the Biogeochemistry of Trace Elements (ICOBTE), Fukuoka, Japan, (). 12–16 July 2015.

  • van der Ent, Antony, Mulligan, David R. and Erskine, Peter D. (2014). Identification of hyperaccumulator plants in nickel mining leases: conservation strategies and potential applications. In: 2nd Conference of SERA « From Large to Small Islands ». Society for Ecological Restoration Australasia (SERA), Noumea, New Caledonia, (67-71). 17–21 November 2014.

  • van der Ent, Antony, Mulligan, David and Erskine, Peter (2013). Newly discovered nickel hyperaccumulators from Kinabalu Park, Sabah (Malaysia) with potential for phytomining. In: Stuart Winchester, Fernando Valenzuela and David Mulligan, enviromine2013: 3rd International Seminar on Environmental Issues in Mining. Proceedings. enviromine2013: 3rd International Seminar on Environmental Issues in Mining, Santiago, Chile, (213-221). 4-6 December, 2013.

  • van der Ent, Antony (2011). Ecology of ultramafic outcrops at Mount Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia. In: 7th International Conference on Serpentine Ecology: Promoting Awareness of Serpentine Biodiversity. Abstract Book. International Conference on Serpentine Ecology (7th, ICSE, 2011), Coimbra, Portugal, (81-81). 12-16 June 2011.

  • van der Ent, A. (2011). Evolution of plant life on ultramafic edaphic islands at Mt Kinabalu. In: International Conference on the Biogeochemistry of Trace Elements (11th, ICOBTE, 2011), Florence, Italy, (). 3-8 July 2011.

  • van der Ent, A. (2011). The ecology of ultramafic areas in Sabah: Threats and conservation needs. In: K. M. Wong, Proceedings of the 8th Flora Malesiana Symposium. International Flora Malesiana Symposium (8th, FM8, 2010), Singapore, Singapore, (385-393). 23-27 August 2010.

Other Outputs

PhD and MPhil Supervision

Current Supervision

  • Doctor Philosophy — Principal Advisor

    Other advisors:

  • Doctor Philosophy — Associate Advisor

    Other advisors:

  • Doctor Philosophy — Associate Advisor

    Other advisors:

  • Doctor Philosophy — Associate Advisor

    Other advisors:

  • Doctor Philosophy — Associate Advisor

    Other advisors:

Possible Research Projects

Note for students: The possible research projects listed on this page may not be comprehensive or up to date. Always feel free to contact the staff for more information, and also with your own research ideas.

  • Hyperaccumulators are plants that have the remarkable ability to concentrate up to 6% nickel in their leaves and up to 25% in their sap. These plants can be used in phytomining, a new technology to recover nickel from mining waste or contaminated land by growing and harvesting these plants ('metal crops') and extracting nickel from their biomass thereby producing high-grade bio-ore. Our research seeks to understand how these plants can achieve such extraordinarily levels of nickel uptake in their shoots. We are looking for motivated candidates to pursue PhD research with us in this exciting field. In natural tropical ultramafic soils, or in saprolite mine wastes, the pool of available nickel will be strongly depleted by hyperaccumulator plants and biogeochemically recycled or withdrawn from the ecosystem by harvested biomass. Currently, there is no information on the dynamics and quantification of the nickel pools in ultramafic soils and therefore the potential duration and the efficiency of phytomining. Moreover, there are additional fundamental questions that arise, including the ecological role (niche) of hyperaccumulator plants in native ultramafic ecosystems, their role in ultramafic pedogenesis, and the efficiency of biogeochemical cycling (nutrients and metals) in hyperaccumulator plant stands. This PhD project aims to answer the following key research question: What are the nickel fluxes and dynamics across the soil-plant compartments in a tropical ‘metal crop’ system on ultramafic soils?

  • Hyperaccumulator plants have the unusual ability to concentrate extraordinary amounts of certain trace elements in their living tissues. To date, a total of 15 zinc hyperaccumulator species have been reported globally. Dichapetalum gelonioides is a woody shrub or small tree that occurs in Southeast Asia. Extraordinarily, Dichapetalum gelonioides hyperaccumulates zinc from normal soils with background concentrations of zinc. It is the only tropical and the only woody zinc hyperaccumulator plant species described so far. It has been estimated that as much as 25% of the world's population is affected by Zn deficiency, and mainly results from reduced dietary intake (and low Zn absorption) from food crops low in zinc, especially in developing countries. Zinc hyperaccumulator biomass may be utilized as organic zinc fertilizers or as a micronutrient supplements for human consumption. We are looking for motivated candidates to pursue PhD research with us in this exciting field. The research project will consist of a combination of laboratory and greenhouse experiments, as well as fieldwork. This project contributes to better understanding the ecophysiology of Dichapetalum gelonioides with the ultimate aim of developing it as a zinc biofortified crop.

  • The wastes from the minerals industry are multiple-stressed environments where plants are exposed to potentially phytotoxic metals, as well as a range of other edaphic challenges such as adverse physical characteristics of the substrates, salinity, limited nutrient availability, water stress and drought. The ability of native metallophytes to tolerate extreme metal concentrations and other difficult edaphic conditions indicates their potential for rehabilitation of minerals wastes. Successful rehabilitation strategy could capitalise on the unique ability of these plants to tolerate adverse soil conditions including potential metal toxicity, high salinity, low nutrient status and the semi-arid climate. The main challenge hereby will be to increase the relative abundance of native (metal-tolerant) species. The Dugald River and Roseby zinc-lead-copper deposits, located in central Queensland, are some of the worlds’ largest surfacing ore bodies. Over an area 10 km soils are enriched in zinc, lead and copper and host unique metallophyte vegetation. Identifying these specially-adapted plant species will be crucial for future rehabilitation success at Dugald River and other base metal mining operations of north-west Queensland. We are looking for motivated candidates to pursue PhD research with us in this exciting field. The research project will consist of a combination of laboratory/greenhouse experiments, and fieldwork in Australia.

  • Fluoride pollution can originate from natural geogenic occurrences or result from coal burning processes as well as bore water from coal steam gas extraction. Australia is unique in having a number of endemic plant species that naturally accumulate fluoride in their leaves. Several of these species can contain an astonishing 5000 mg/kg fluoride in their leaves. These plant species, called hyperaccumulators, may be used for phyto-extraction; a novel approach that uses hyperaccumulator plants to clean up specific pollutants from the soil. Phyto-extraction entails the growing and harvesting of hyperaccumulator biomass to remove pollutants from the environment. This technology has been successfully demonstrated for well-known pollutants such as arsenic and cadmium, but to date has never been tested for fluoride. This project consists of setting up growth experiments in which a fluoride hyperaccumulator will be grown in a climate chamber at the Centre for Mined Land Rehabilitation for a period of 5 weeks. The plants will be dosed with varying amounts of fluoride and at the end of the trial the plants will be harvested and analysed for the total fluoride content. This information will be key to establishing whether fluoride phyto-extraction may potentially be a viable technology to address instances of fluoride pollution in Australia.